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Movie Review: Grandma

GrandmaPosterComedienne Lily Tomlin gets a vehicle she deserves in Grandma, a layered character study about what makes an angry, old lesbian. The dry, day-in-the-life comedy peels away politics and political correctness to depict an original and untold story. It’s small in scope but not small-minded and, with an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion at stake, the movie for Sony Pictures Classics by writer and director Paul Weitz (Little Fockers, About a Boy, Admission), is remarkably radical in under 90 minutes.

Ms. Tomlin plays Elle, an aging feminist poet and writer living in what could be Silver Lake or some other grungy Los Angeles neighborhood. She’s an embittered academic who lashes out at her partner Olivia (Judy Greer) in an abrupt eruption of anger that’s obviously defensive. Deep down, she’s human, and, while Weitz describes the movie as his tribute to feminism (in an opening night Hollywood interview), Grandma‘s more of the same secular humanism for which he’s become known. Granddaughter (Julia Garner) shows up at the doorstep with an unwanted pregnancy after the meltdown, granting Grandma a reason to revisit the past to forge a new beginning.

Central to the plot is the teenager’s goal to get an abortion, which is perfectly dramatized without the rancor of politics and religion. Reducing controversial issues to a human scale in personal terms related to each character, Weitz leaves just enough unsaid and undone to add depth to Grandma and those she encounters, rouses, jostles, hustles and locks lips and horns with along the way, from the butch cafe lesbian (the late Elizabeth Pena) and an ex-husband (Sam Elliott) to her own daughter, the teen’s mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden (Path to ParadiseThe Hoax, If I Were You) who gets better in every role and delivers another outstanding performance. Almost everyone is excellent in this movie, from Greer (Dawn off the Planet of the Apes, The Descendants) as the hurt lesbian lover and Elliott (Ghost Rider, Mask, The Incredible Hulk) as the hurt heterosexual lover to Garner as the conflicted granddaughter, glimmering turns by every minor role actor and Judy Geeson (Brannigan, To Sir, With Love) in a cameo.

But Grandma belongs to Lily Tomlin. The character actress and comedienne, who broke out on NBC’s Laugh-In as Ernestine the telephone operator and has had an enduring stage and screen career in hits such as Big Business with Bette Midler, has never had the fullest career to match her talent. She’s hilarious here and there in All of Me and The Incredible Shrinking Woman with her blend of physical and intellectual comedy, and even with her leftist, anti-business bent, Ms. Tomlin usually entertains as an everywoman. In Grandma, Weitz keeps her to a steadily rhythmic clip, coasting through references to Betty Friedan and whatever comes from her character’s Tourette’s-like propensity to say whatever comes to mind to poignant moments of repose when her bitter poet Elle must face the consequences of her life choices. Lily Tomlin is a woman in whole here, fully intelligent, prickly, principled, abrasive, maternal and sexual. The neatly segmented Grandma, in which an old motor vehicle serves as transportation for and symbolic of an old motormouth, may be the role that suits her best.

grandma_4-620x325Grandma is a family affair, like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though it’s less contrived and more subdued than that hilarious movie. Each of the three women (granddaughter, mother and grandma) have pivotal moments of self-awareness, consciously chosen realizations and admissions that add up to a strong, female-driven family in which the term bossy is far from banned. As this subtly, deftly made story against the Dark Ages arcs toward a single figure walking away alone, the theme of a woman as properly bossy is aptly understood, even by the child-woman who mistakes Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique for a comic book character.

In his appearance last night in Hollywood, Paul Weitz said that the impetus for this lowercase-titled picture comes from his time with Ms. Tomlin on his Tina Fey movie Admission. The perfect showcase for the talented Lily Tomlin, with its radical departure from and challenge to Hollywood’s appeasement of anti-life, anti-choice religionists, is the gentle, searching and intelligent result.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The World According to Garp (1982)


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George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s breakthrough 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, is better than its reputation. The Warner Bros. picture was a critical and commercial failure. Above all, this serious-themed movie—out this month on Blu-Ray—is seeded with ideas.

That the ideas involve sex, collectivism and death make The World According to Garp a culturally significant motion picture. With Hill (Hawaii, The Sting, The Little Drummer Girl) directing and a taut script by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away), the novel’s puritanical feminist mother to Garp (Robin Williams in his first major movie), portrayed by Glenn Close with perfection, sets the tone. The plain, Yankee frankness of seriously horrifying ideals mixed with perfectly reasonable ideals plays across Garp’s lifetime.

Garp’s mother is a rapist who compares sex with disease and, when her own son expresses the desire to gain new knowledge by asking questions, she cuts him down with a snap: “I’m tired of your questions.” She is both mother and monster. Garp’s mother violates his privacy, rescues him from danger and buys him sex from a prostitute and thus enmeshes Garp in the crazy making of her life. This is Irving’s absurdism but it is also the stuff of life. From a former top athlete who becomes a transsexual (John Lithgow) to Garp’s starch grandparents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) and a reckless driver (Matthew Cowles), colorful characters depict various contradictions of our time.

Accordingly, the result is, and this fits the movie’s theme, an adventurous life. Garp’s lonely, sorrowful struggle to find happiness is strangely larger than and true to life. Garp, named after a crippled tailgunner his nurse mother raped in the hospital, wrestles the vicious dog that bit him as a boy during fellatio in order to recover his first manuscript. He becomes, of course, a writer and a wrestler. The act of fellatio reprises in his life with devastating impact, too. The World According to Garp is relentless in such audacious details and rich in symbolism. Williams is adept in every scene, playing the suppressed energy of an emasculated New England male caught in the 20th century’s rapid descent into feminist dogma and ripped apart by sexual liberation.

The story is brilliantly anti-sexual in a fundamental sense, though it is captured in a way which, thanks to Robin Williams and his co-star Mary Beth Hurt as his college professor wife Helen, is compelling. Their troubled marriage thoughtfully comes undone amid conflicting career goals and frustrations, as each wrestles with anxiety over kids, fear of death and balancing love, work and life. Living with the insecure writer, or the academic constantly tempted by youth, and making “the kids” a rationalization for denial, are all dramatized with skill and humor. From the hilarious definition of “gradual school” to an uncomfortable scene between the babysitter and Garp, in which he salivates at her being 18 while she salivates at his being 30, Garp is honest, clear and insightful.

It makes the audience think.

But Garp is best in its anti-sex theme showing the mass contradiction of feminism, a collectivist offshoot defining one’s identity as based on one’s sex, an idea which was widely accepted and only spread after the bestselling novel was adapted. The women’s-only coastal compound where Garp’s evangelistic mother nurses her adherents back to health, from the tough-but-kind, and notably unsatisfied, transsexual to the man-hating women who mutilate themselves as martyrs for the feminist faith, is both prison and sanctuary. The place is peaceful, decent and it’s where Garp goes to heal, thanks to his mother in a final act of enlightenment.

Garp’s Kennedy-like compound is a transient place of irrationalism, where the wicked and the wounded alike are housed, granting refuge to the absurd and tolerance to society’s most vulnerable victims. The World According to Garp co-habits the 20th century’s worst ideas, including pragmatism, fatalism and self-sacrifice, and thus reflects the United States of America. That the practitioners are women seeking to rule men is especially astute.

This is not to say that Garp is explicitly anti-feminist, as Irving and Tesich merely send feminists up for the sake of humor. In one transition, Roberta Muldoon is maiden to Garp’s boys during child’s play. In the next scene, Helen capitulates to playing maiden in need of rescue for real to one of her students. Sexual stereotypes self-perpetuate; Garp’s women, even his stubborn mother, have a point.

Faith breeds force, as Ayn Rand once wrote, and brute force takes its toll, though Irving probably does not intend this as the meaning of Garp. The subtext is there, however, instilled in dark, strange and almost surrealistic plot points, which are possibly too serious and tragic for most, except the most damaged. It calls out life’s absurdities, such as the iconic plane striking the house, and beckons the weird to face the strange, as David Bowie sings in “Changes”, and embrace the byproduct of mixed ideas: the unusual, even the painful, hard and terrible.

In the character Pooh Percy, the archetypical arch-feminist, who is also a sociopath, one sees the full arc of Garp‘s clearly dramatized sub-theme that, while life should be lived as an adventure, which in this context means embracing uniqueness including any contradictions, ultimately man is doomed by the irrational. Whether this is true (I think it’s false), one can take it, even on Garp‘s terms, to mean that man’s only doomed to self-terminate to the extent he sanctions the irrational. Pooh Percy is a feminist in glasses and pigtails taken to the logical application of her ideals. A line early in the movie indicates that Pooh’s mother implants the child with hatred of her own sex and life and one wonders what els might have happened to this child, especially since her father is a malignant if minor character. Pooh is like an Islamic fundamentalist trained from scratch to be like a laser-guided missile to destroy sex, love and life. To Pooh, values are poison; she is like an automatonic assassin programmed for death. Watch Pooh for a lesson in what happens when decent people refuse to think, judge and speak up about the judged.

Garp is not, contrary to some assertions, flat, terrible and deadly. Certainly, Garp is mixed. The theme is not positive. Yet intelligent ideas about writing permeates the movie. From the gloves in a story Garp writes and the role of the piano in his self-recovery to the sound of a typewriter’s keys at Christmastime, this is an involving depiction of the writer’s life in stark, dramatic detail. It is possible to live a meaningful life in The World According to Garp, with the richest rewards coming in the most surprising places, times and gestures. Garp’s greatest literary achievement finally comes as a result of Garp’s greatest risk. His payoff comes in a most unwelcome context with a character played by Amanda Plummer. It’s a poignant moment which captures Irving’s brand of misfit individualism. Taking the tragic as a metaphysical primary, Garp proposes that one’s life soars only before the downfall.

This makes The World According to Garp a timely, thoughtful movie not without merit which is thoroughly modern, and prophetic, in its malevolence.

Movie Review: She’s Funny That Way

ShesFunnyThatWayPosterSee Lionsgate’s new comedy for what it is not, knowing in advance that it’s too aware of what it is. Peter Bogdanovich’s return to cinema, She’s Funny That Way, is a diversionary pleasure. It is flawed and light, smart and snappy. But it helps to know that it is embedded with so much more.

As a movie in the genre of what writer and director Bogdanovich (What’s Up, Doc?, The Last Picture Show, Mask) calls screwball comedy, it’s a daring choice for a comeback film. Master filmmaker Bogdanovich, a writer and film journalist who became a top, moneymaking director in the 1970s and is known for seminal pictures such as Paper Moon (1973), is discriminating. He’s outspoken as an artist who rejects today’s cultural vulgarity. That his personal life has at times become as larger than life as some of his movies—his Playboy centerfold model girlfriend was murdered in a plot depicted in Star 80—powers his unique perspective.

She’s Funny That Way focuses one’s attention, in a universal sense, on what matters: the truth about what’s funny.

Framed by two female characters in an interview exchange, the story mixes prostitution and show business. So, it’s easy to see the potential for humor, lines with jokes and sight gags. She’s Funny That Way, centering on one New York City actress (Imogen Poots, A Long Way Down), grounds the humor in the good. As the Poots character spins her bawdy tale of getting a part in a play to a skeptical journalist (Illeana Douglas), she begins with gratitude and she means it. True to shifting, ensemble comedy, whether the intended recipient of her gratitude deserves it may not be obvious—neither is it obvious who the intended may be—but describing the plot as the tale of a call girl who gets a callback isn’t quite right.

Of course, this is what makes the madcap affair a bit too contrived and self-conscious, which undercuts the laughter. What Mr. Bogdanovich attempts is an integration of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940s’ lightness (complete with a Lubitsch movie line capping its theme) in a present-day setting. With Owen Wilson (How Do You Know, Little Fockers, Midnight in Paris) as the play’s director, Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man) as an unlikely playboy, Jennifer Aniston (Love Happens) as an angry female psychiatrist, Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) as the playwright, and Kathryn Hahn (Tomorrowland) as the director’s wife and actress, multiple characters interact, intervene and collide. It’s a comedy—with an outstanding cast led by Poots’ heartfelt performance—of errors, omissions and facades.

There’s humor in the unmasking. As subplots converge with exaggerated exactness and the fur flies in theater, restaurant and hotel scenes, She’s Funny That Way plays out its theme that aligning one’s sexuality with one’s self-interest is sure to make one a little mad these days. For all the classic Hollywood references, which are a treat unto themselves, She’s Funny That Way is refreshingly modern in the best sense. Peter Bogdanovich has made a sober, realistic movie about becoming self-made with a rare lightness that’s sorely missing from most comedies. It’s not entirely successful, so don’t expect nonstop laughing out loud but there is nothing tainted or jaded here.

Today, this is an incredible achievement, especially if you’re Peter Bogdanovich, who ought to keep making movies. She’s Funny That Way, which reunites the director with his Last Picture Show star Cybill Shepherd and is co-written by his ex-wife, Louise Stratten, and co-produced by his daughter Antonia, gives sleeping one’s way to the top and making the most of the madcap, a fresh, benevolent twist.

The Pope Proposes to Hollywood

The Pope has reportedly proposed a merger with Hollywood.

According to an industry trade publication report, Pope Francis wrote to top movie industry players and pitched a conference on influencing movies, television and show business to spread faith, religion and positive views of the Catholic Church. The proposed meeting, which the Pope apparently wants to include a powerful agent with connections to the Obama administration, would convene at the Vatican this fall.

Among those apparently on the invitation list are the brother of Chicago Mayor and ex-Clinton and Obama staffer Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel, and his co-CEO at William Morris Endeavor, Patrick Whitesell, producer Brian Grazer (Inside Deep Throat), Oprah Winfrey (Selma), Matt Damon (Hereafter) and industry titan David Geffen. Pope Francis seeks to discuss “how the church is perceived by Western media influencers and ways to improve its portrayal in entertainment” according to the report, which also notes that the Vatican is apparently working with the nonprofit Varkey Foundation, a charity launched by Bill Clinton with ties to UNICEF, Oxfam, an Arab state, Amnesty International, the Clinton Global Initiative (Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s troubled charity) and something called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

It’s bad enough that Big Government is expanding its pernicious influence and intervention in Hollywood, as I wrote when Mrs. Obama intruded upon the Oscars, and the mixture of Hollywood, faith and religion is not new, but an official convergence of faith, religion and state with leaders of the entertainment industry is truly a putrid notion to any respectable artist, studio or legitimate show business. Whatever the merits of their work and whatever their leftist-collectivist-altruist political philosophy, these titans of one of America’s greatest industries, with its dismal record of standing for individual rights including the freedom of speech unmolested by the state—especially a religious state—ought to break free from its track record and reject this proposal in the strongest possible terms.

Pushing faith, religion and their strong influence on statism into movies, TV, publishing and music is an abomination which calls to mind Clinton’s proposed V-chip, the Moral Majority, Tipper Gore and the endless campaign of puritanical fascists such as feminist Gloria Steinem and traditionalist Phyllis Schlafly to impose the equivalent of speech codes, censorship—and today’s insidious version, a ban on “hate speech”—on everything Americans see, watch, read and listen to. Better artists and show business industrialists than this bunch ought to speak out against the Pope’s proposal. Bad ideas silently sanctioned by the worst purveyors of sludge and mediocrity can infect the rest of Hollywood. Having Winfrey, Geffen and Grazer bow before whatever robed mystic runs the Vatican this fall may pre-determine—and contaminate—what you read, watch and consume next fall and far into the future.

Everyone decent in Hollywood (and the West), whatever his personal beliefs, should defend the principle of free expression and urge Hollywood to reject the Pope’s proposal to influence and propagandize the movie industry. In other words, speak up for freedom and turn the Pope down.

Revisiting ‘Brokeback Mountain’

To mark this year’s 10th anniversary since the release of Focus Features’ Brokeback Mountain (2005), I’ve added three articles I wrote about the movie.

brokebackmountain_posterThe first, a column on the tragic 2008 death of leading actor Heath Ledger, was written before the release of The Dark Knight (read the review—my first blog post on July 20, 2008—here). I have nothing to add to the commentary, which I wrote for a movie Web site and titled Heath Ledger Dies. The second is an interview I conducted in 2006 with an executive at the movie studio which I called Selling Brokeback Mountain. I think this freewheeling exchange is interesting for several reasons. The piece is a frank discussion about how to market a motion picture. I decided to seek the interview with Jack Foley after seeing the film. I sensed that director Ang Lee’s movie was a seminal film with potential to make money, however, I knew from my experience and observation attending the press screening that persuading theaters and moviegoers to schedule and see the film would be a challenge. Foley gave me a short, whirlwind interview which I think evokes the unique enthusiasm surrounding the movie. Third, I’ve included my original movie review of Brokeback Mountain with added home video notes on two separate editions.

I have seen it a few times—I asked the studio for two separate pre-release screenings before I wrote my review and published it, which was the first time I’d done that, as a safeguard against predisposition or bias given the unprecedented hype and ridicule in advance of the December 9, 2005 release—and I will probably watch it again before the 10th anniversary. I’ve also read the original magazine short story by Annie Proulx, which, like True Grit, Shane and Red River, is a short work of psychologically tense Western-themed fiction that elicits a distinctive movie adaptation. Much will probably be said and written this year. Readers and viewers will judge Brokeback Mountain and should. I think of it now as a tale of a loner born too soon, similar to how I regard American Sniper. Like that fine movie, I remember Brokeback Mountain as the year’s best picture, a tragic and haunting movie about the cost of living for others and the lonely, modern struggle to live for oneself.